The amount of writing done by social conservatives on the topic of religious liberty is far more extensive than I can get a handle on. But after following prominent social conservatives on twitter, I’ll attempt a response.
There are three ways in which religious liberty is construed by such authors.
A. The ability to have laws which privilege their religious faith over others. From this standpoint there is no neutral standpoint, so either the law reflects “Christian morality” or it opposes it. When the Supreme Court ruled against sodomy laws, for birth control and abortion rights, and finally for marriage equality, the government decided to enact a faith hostile to Christianity. As one author puts it:
Christian morality restricts sexual behavior to the marriage of one man and one woman. The state, in the court decisions and laws of the past 50 years, has accepted the claim of the sexual revolution, and homosexual liberation. But the adversary morality it advances, the right to self-determination in “intimate” and “personal” matters, is just as dogmatic. They can insist that they ought to have sexual choices that they want, and that these choices should be immune from adverse judgment (i.e., discrimination). But this is just another worldview
According to the author there is no legitimate religious view that opposes discrimination. The only legitimate religious view actively supports it. The religious claims of Reform and Conservative Judaism, of Unitarian Universalism, of mainline Protestant churches from the United Church of Christ to the Presbyterian Church USA are not religious. They are a secular anti morality which is to be defeated.
If not defeated, they should be sidelined to allow religious discrimination. In this, the claim for “religious liberty” is the rejection of any and every attempt to compel any business, any government, any public space from practicing non discrimination. Let discrimination have its hold, determined by democratic majorities.
If this is religious liberty, then yes I am opposed to it. Such view would be content with the legal right to imprison LGBT folks, if majorities favored it. In such a view, equal protection for LGBT folks is a zero sum, the more LGBT folks have access to the same rights everybody else has the more the state actively undermines Christian faith and practice. For me then it’d be time to rethink Christian faith and practice.
B. The second view is disturbed by the harsh rhetoric often employed against the religious right, which in this piece, is Christianity. While acknowledging liberal Christians exist, he says “I’ll leave to Gresham Machen the debate of whether liberal Christianity at all resembles orthodox Christianity.” Gresham says no by the way.
I pick this one line to notice a theme. It is never the case that LGBT Christians can be Christians. And if you follow social conservatives you’ll notice that about 80% of their articles are responding to LGBT folks, opposing legal protections, even opposing their acknowledgement. You can read how GSAs are created to molest children, how monogamy is unheard of among LGBT folks. And at 44 I should be dead by now.
If LGBT folks are unhappy and express harsh feelings towards the religious right, this is not an attack on “religious liberty”. This is the result of a forty year organized campaign to prevent any legal and social protections for LGBT folks. It has been LGBT folks being the constant foil and facing defamation from pulpit to state legislatures.
In Oklahoma Rep. Sally Kern called gay folks a worse threat than terrorists. If a gay person responds by calling Kern on par with the Taliban, this does not ennoble our discourse. But it has a context. It’s not about an irrational hatred of Christianity. It’s a rhetorical form of self defense.
In the Gospels I learn that self defense can produce an eye for an eye. It is not born out of a love of enemy which we are called to do as Christians.
So I am not satisfied with our current discourse. Not on this issue. Not on any issue. How we move both sides to a different language though, I’m open to ideas. It will presume good will. And it will involve avoiding genuine harm against the other person. Without that in play, the defensive language will continue. With it, dialog is possible.
3. The third use of the term religious liberty involves the religious norms of individuals versus the principle of non discrimination. Negotiating that can be tricky enough but some basic distinctions seem to have been lost in recent debates.
First there is a difference between businesses and individuals. Losing that distinction means losing a meaningful notion of a public space, which all non discrimination laws have been built on. Hobby Lobby does not have a religion even if the CEO does. And if Hobby Lobby has a religion then its employees are subject to it. Thus religious belief now gets to circumscribe the lives of others. That’s a problem.
It’s easy to make this distinction with a large corporation, it’s harder to identify it with mom and pop businesses. There it’s hard to separate the individual business owner and the business itself. Thus the focus on bakers and florists who refuse service to gay folks. And that is what is happening. It’s not refusing to participate in marriages, which these businesses do. It’s because they are gay. We recognize that it is the people involved in the marriage which produces the objection. Which is a classic case of discrimination.
With churches it becomes clear that there can be no compulsion. And this has been recognized with every non discrimination law. The fact that the Catholic church prohibits women priests is not a concern of the government. But what happens when churches play a public role? If for a day they are a polling place, they represent the government. Isn’t that a public space? The MA human rights commission has argued yes.
But the question of what counts as public becomes tricky. Is everything a church does that is open to the public, an example of it being a public space? A worship service, presumably is open to the public but we wouldn’t countenance its regulation. A spaghetti dinner put on by the church is an expression of its ministry. I’d argue that these are the church being the church and cannot be regulated as such.
What happens when churches take on the role of the state. When 80% of foster care and adoption is done by private and religious agencies in TX, the church becomes a mediator of the government, one that has few alternatives. If the government prohibits discrimination, is it requiring religious agencies to go against their mission?
Charitable choice has opened up this landfield of problems as the government has more and more given up its functions to private and religious groups. I’d argue that this is a problem. And if churches take that on, I’d argue that they voluntarily placed themselves as mediators of the state. And that it is not an imposition on their liberty if they have to follow policies of the state, including non discrimination.
But direct subsidies of the government to play the role of the state is one thing. What about indirect subsidies such as student loans for colleges that discriminate, what about tax advantages that exist for religious groups, churches that discriminate? I’d argue that this is passive. Student loans are for the student, not the college. The tax free status of churches belongs to all nonprofits, not just religions.And the removal of these things involves a level of government involvement that opens up a can of worms.
Can individuals be fired for their stance on this issue? I’d say no. That should be protected under non discrimination laws that protect freedom of religion and belief. Can a person be fired for not performing their job because of their religious belief? Yes. Can reasonable accommodations be made to insure the job is done while protecting said belief. Yes. This is an area that compromises can be made.
The standard is to protect individuals. Discrimination because of sexual orientation is a genuine harm. It denies needed services from employment to housing. If there is a way to stop that while ensuring protections for religious beliefs, we’re better off. Under the first definition of religious liberty, such a compromise is not possible. Under the second and third definition, if we want to avoid continual culture war, it is a requirement.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma